There’s something about the Phantom of the Opera.
It starts early, when auctioneers clearing memorabilia from the old Paris Opera House arrive at Lot 666: an enormous chandelier. Perhaps we remember, the auctioneer asks, the story of the Phantom of the Opera? Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Blake Bowden) does. He bids and the chandelier rises above our heads to find its place, ablaze with light. It’s a grand set piece infused with magic. You might applaud.
That chandelier leads us back to the time of that “opera ghost” with a striking half-mask (Josh Piterman), the rising young singer under his possessive tutelage (Amy Manford), and the Vicomte who loved her. It’s all obsession and gothic romance and spectacle, and the chandelier waits patiently above us for the entire first act.
And then it falls.
Since 1986, the improbable mix of operatic flourish, classic broadway pop, and 80s synth-rock that forms the backbone of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s love-triangle take on Gaston Leroux’s novel has won hearts across the globe, surpassing its source to become our best-known version of the tale. Impossibly of its time and remarkably persistent, it is the longest running show in the history of Broadway and the second longest running musical in the West End (after only Les Miserables).
Indeed, Australia has its own long history with the Phantom, making international careers for its most famous men in the mask, Rob Guest and Anthony Warlow. Local creative collaborators Simon Phillips and Gabriela Tylesova made the best out of Webber’s muddled Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, and their production remains the definitive, recorded for international posterity. Opera Australia even staged Phantom of the Opera earlier this year for Handa Opera on the harbour before coming back indoors to do it again. It seems we can’t quite let go of this phenomenon.
This production, however, is something new. Producer Cameron Mackintosh created a new version of the frozen-in-time musical in 2012 for touring through the UK and North America, and after the West End Covid-19 theatre shutdowns, it was installed at London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, the show’s spiritual home. This new production – claiming to be grittier (which in the world of the Phantom seems to mean “more shadows”) and more empowering of its protagonist, Christine (which isn’t really possible in this story) – has never been seen before in Australia.
The now classic (and gently dated) set has given way to a refresh by Paul Brown with more modular pieces, mirrors to heighten the show’s preoccupation with illusion and tricks of light. He has downsized all the power-ballad music video-style candles and crosses for a more sophisticated (if less fun) take on the Phantom’s lair. Gothic staircases have been replaced by one that seems to appear magically out of a wall, step by step, and the gondola still glides on the Opera House’s underground lake, though it’s a journey taken more out of efficiency now than spectacle.
Paule Constable’s lights add a little more gravitas to the whole affair. With costume tweaks that elaborate on the late Maria Björnson’s original sketches, the new look as a whole feels partly like the world of the Phantom has grown up, and partly like it’s trying to be taken more seriously. But the beauty of the Phantom has always been its unselfconscious earnestness, its insistence on embellishments and old theatre magic. Giving it a straight face dampens its impact.
But it’s not all dull: that risen chandelier still falls, and in the Australian production, a little extra spectacle has been added to the moment. This now-old trick, incredibly, still thrills. That’s the heart of the show right there: bold, beautiful, spectacle.
Nothing, however, thrills more than the music. The West End production took on this new staging while also reducing their orchestra by 50%. Luckily, Opera Australia’s orchestra is at full complement, and under the keen intelligence of Guy Simpson’s musical supervision, it’s an absolute joy.
Simpson has worked on Phantom’s score since Australia’s original 1990 production and has overseen its sound across the world; it’s difficult to imagine a better custodian. With conductor Anthony Barnhill on board to coax a commanding richness from the orchestra, when the electronic bass and drums collide with horns and strings, it’s joyous – pop melodies made high drama. He ensures the score is shot through with such delicious clarity it could make you giddy.
It’s also beautifully sung. Piterman, returning home to Australia after playing the Phantom in the West End, holds the centre with his steady, sure performance that ensures the Phantom is never quite a monster, and never fully redeemable, either. Bowden’s vocal warmth gives Raoul’s feelings for Christine a depth that Webber’s book never bothers to construct.
But it’s Amy Manford who shines brightest. The Australian-American soprano has played Christine (also in the West End), and she steps into the role here like she was born for it, finding new tenderness without sacrificing strength. In the title number, when the Phantom commands Christine to sing ever higher, she doesn’t waver: she rises to it, and her voice travels to us like a gift.
It’s the music, ultimately, that matters: Christine singing because she must; electronic drums and harp and strings swelling to convey heightened emotion; a lonely man drowning in echoed melodies. Forgive the new staging – the sound is still a one-in-a-million treat.